My granddad would have been one hundred years old today. Happy birthday. Forty years ago I played you the song on my cheeks! Thirty years ago the whole family gathered with many friends for a relaxing day of the kind loved by that side of the family, where people were people and nothing else mattered much.
I wrote this words a couple of weeks ago, coincidentally. They weren’t connected with granddad’s centenary. I was at a writing group and we were asked to write about our childhood’s and the happy memories. Right now thinking of my childhood does not feel safe. But granddad came to mind as a place of safety, one I wish I’d been able to know better.
These words, fifteen to twenty minutes of free writing about him. Not all of them are true:
Boots of Compassion
My granddad tested me with logic puzzles cobbled from Lewis Carroll. He’d challenge me with the possible ways his red dipping bird would perpetually make motion, sticking its beak into a cracked cup of water, the handle glue-fixed for he never threw anything away.
He’d tell jokes that weren’t funny about men with one-armed ladders, baker shop confusion and the problem of madeira cakes, or enthuse about the ticking of metronomes and words he claimed defined a kind of eighteenth century vase.
Then granddad would smile as he dug up another prize vegetable for the flower show, ready to be auctioned with his skilled patter and gavel after learning whether our family had triumphed over the Crawfords, our horticultural, culinary, and child’s plasticine garden rivals.
He spoke with the gentle calm of a Gandhi and was excited life had no meaning beyond the present time, Flatland was a place, and windmills still turned in the Sussex Weald.
His hair curled white and his grin at repairing, Heath-Williams like, every gadget and gizmo and wire wrapped chopping board was a revolutionary strength.
Later we found radioactive paint and drawings by German prisoners, treasures in attic corners, tied in string from another world.
He let us climb in the trees, play cricket on the green against the old beech tree with a bend in the trunk and invite us back for fudge or gooseberry fool from the prickle bushes I later killed by mistake.
Granddad, in old plain clothes, blazer jacket with holes, each worn thread a mark of pride in the way he’d risen in pain and hunger from pauper peasant to professor, the cleverest man in my world. A man I never understood.
He’d make puns and punch and perfect tea from loose leaves in a pot he’d owned for forty years, the spout and handle not original but replaced from jumble sales. Not a colour match in sight by we were rhapsodic at the smell of coffee beans and the thrill of the rare days when the soda stream worked.
Then we’d be off, no pressure, no expectation, no calls to be someone else like I’d heard elsewhere, and we’d walk. A thousand miles it felt like when I was eight but it was only two, including the Ifield Quarter Mile and the house where Foxe and Penn preached.
Sunny days and they were in my only safe place, the one I think of without flashbacks of harm.
Granddad was the coolest man on earth. Friend to all, campaigner of community, the brightest spark in the village. He wore love on his sleeves, compassion on his boots, and acceptance on the frame of his ancient, wire string fixed glasses. The star of Ifield.
If only I could have realised as a child, already living as someone else, that his logic tests had meaning and that meaning was generosity. I couldn’t see him.
I see him now. My granddad. My friend. Wittgenstein’s too.
He finished his autobiography and died an hour later, leaving us rich for what he gave.